Robert Gray: I'm Worried About My Desk

My desk is too neat. I've seen many other book trade people's desks over the years. Most glory in an organized--"I know where to find what I need"--chaos of paper, ARCs, mail (opened, half-opened and unopened) and other necessary detritus, ranging from science project coffee mugs to inkless pens.

But my desk? Barren.

I'm certainly not lacking for material to correct the situation. There's a large room downstairs, furnished with packed bookshelves, and the volume of incoming ARCs and comp copies never slackens. My desktop, however, remains unnervingly pristine.

Whether you're a bookseller, writer or publisher, you probably log a majority of your workday in Deskland. Even frontline booksellers, who spend hours on their feet, are also tied umbilically to sales floor information desks or POS counters (which are really just high desks cluttered with impulse-buy items).

One of Garrison Keillor's writing desks used to be on the sales floor at the old Cathedral Hill location of Common Good Books, St. Paul, Minn. And when he led a media tour of the new store last year, Keillor said: "I don't know where I'll hang out--I'll need a desk."

In Christopher Morley's The Haunted Bookshop, proprietor Roger Mifflin is introduced sitting "tilted back in a swivel chair, in a corner which seemed the nerve center of the establishment. The large pigeon-holed desk in front of him was piled high with volumes of all sorts, with tins of tobacco and newspaper clippings and letters. An antiquated typewriter, looking something like a harpsichord, was half-buried in sheets of manuscript."

Desks matter.

That's why I'm worried about my desk. I consulted an expert on the subject for perspective. Valerie Kohler owns Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston, Tex., and her store blog's name is More Letters from the Messy Desk.

"My messy desk probably looks like most," she observed. "Our backroom is only 200 square feet and that includes the tiny restroom. Most people can't believe that we have three computers back here and at any time four-plus people might be working here. So there is no privacy and lots of interruptions. But we remain friends. My desk is vintage 1970s, which means it's not ergonomically correct and the drawers except for the one file drawer are pretty useless."

As of yesterday morning, she said her desk's inventory included:

  • A few ARCs that I really want to read
  • Two applications from some very qualified people whom I don't have room for
  • At least 12 catalogues dropped off by reps that haven't made it to the catalogue shelf (Thanks to Edelweiss, I can keep this one tidy.)
  • My lunch bag
  • Some pretty Blue Willow pottery that a book club gave me. What am I going to do with it?
  • Gobs of scratch paper
  • A small Rolodex (Again, thanks to computers, I don't need two big ones like I used to have.)
  • Lotion
  • About six inches of paper that I need to deal with, including a Kobo order, a co-op clarification, notes from our World Book Night Committee meeting and a cool idea I printed from a tweet for our summer reading challenge.
  • My paper calendar, which is my life support
  • Two magnetic poetry boxes (???)
  • A broken mouse
  • Photos of my boys when they were young in swimming trunks with blue tongues; of my husband and I with lots of hair and no gray; and a great picture of my parents with me at the MPIBA show I attended.
  • My water bottle

Valerie called her desk "command central and I love it when I see the gray metal on the bottom. This is where I read e-mails, send the Messy Desk letter, take phone calls and I love every minute!"

Should I mess up my desk?

Research doesn't help. For every study that finds a "messy desk can actually lead people towards clearer thinking," there's another countering that "office clutter undermines productivity and motivation."

Earlier this week, I visited a museum showcasing items from a now-defunct marble company. It occurred to me that the old desk on display in a mock office looked as sparse as mine does now. And yet, that desk was much too weatherbeaten to have been so neat when it was in daily use during the first half of the 20th century.

I probably can't alter my ways, but I did just put an ARC on the desk. It's lying there now, bugging me. I want to shelve it, but I won't just yet. Every journey begins with a single step, they say, and perhaps every messy desk begins with a single, unshelved ARC. --Robert Gray, contributing editor (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now).

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